The same thought process should go into managing an emergency incident. The Incident Commander places the treatment sector too close to the hot zone at a hazardous materials incident or maybe the IC misses the piece of heavy equipment that is still operating at a trench rescue operation, these and a myriad of other scenarios are played out on the battlefield daily. The safety officer concept embodies a strategy that acknowledges that threats to our members exist and empowers the individual who is fulfilling the safety officer position to remedy these situations immediately, after which the ISO makes notification to the Incident Commander of the problems and actions taken to correct the imminent problem. In a mature organization any qualified member should be allowed the opportunity to identify and correct out of balance acts or situations. Rather then being embarrassed or vindictive an effective commander will appreciate this type of proactive conduct as well as encourage its display through positive reinforcement of this behavior. The authors have seen and heard of circumstances where the safety officer was made to "pay" later for acting within their authority, ensuring that safety of members operating but having to "overrule" the direction of a more senior officer acting in the capacity of Incident Commander. This type of retribution not only discourages people from speaking up when discharging the duties of ISO but also places all members in harms way by discounting the degree of danger that may exist in order to sooth the bosses ego or "not wanting to rock the boat."
The next responsibility is to simply observe (look and listen) the entire operation. It is worthy to note that most accidents that occur are highly predictable events. For instance, if a medic uses a stretcher mattress as a "makeshift" sharps container at a mass casualty incident, it is likely that the department will soon have a needle stick injury to manage. If vehicles are not secured properly at the scene of an MCI changes are likely that a possible MVA will occur. Obviously these are very simple examples but the list goes on and on and the multi-dimensional safety threats ranging from oxygen deficient environments to structural collapses and traffic flow at an accident site being left uncontrolled all pose issues for the safety officer and the Incident Management System to address through implementation of pragmatic solutions to keep our members out of harms way. The first step in this process is to pre-identify the obvious threats that exist at out "garden variety" responses and then build on them considering the responses and solutions for the more complex safety issues we may confront in our communities.
Some of the items that must be observed and monitored when you are the Incident Safety Officer are:
- Radio transmissions
- Progress reports
- Tactical positions of members and units
- Incident action plan
- Equipment use
- Structural stability
- Vehicle positioning
- Geography of established sectors
- Hazardous substance behavior at haz/mat incidents
- Environmental influences (oxygen levels etc)
- Projected incident out-comes
By observing/monitoring these operational subcomponents (and many more) the ISO should be able to get a solid sense of the "safety worthiness" of an on-going operation. This may seem like a lot of "stuff" for one person to effectively address but keep in mind that at "high impact/high yield" MCI such as bus wrecks or building collapses the scene me demand that more then one Safety Officer or a staff be assigned to manage the safety risk of members. The authors recommend that if the situation requires the presence of additional safety personnel that the decision be made to have a single individual assigned as the "Safety Officer" with a staff of qualified individuals that work under the ISO. This will assist the commander with insuring that there is only one safety component within the incident action plan and streamline communications between the safety functional area. This translates into facilitating as safe a work environment for our members without the confusion of missed communication or mixed signals/directions being communicated.
The final thought for this article is the ISO's use of a written checklist. By utilizing a well-prepared safety checklist, the safety plan is easy to build and implement on the scene of an emergency. A checklist ensures that critical items are not overlooked when the going gets tough. Once again, our "flying friends" provide us with a great example to follow. The airline pilot uses a written and verbal checklist at every take off and landing. Why take unreasonable or avoidable chances with something as important as flying a plane or managing an emergency incident?
Remember that the proper utilization of an Incident Safety Officer (ISO) will have a significant impact on the effective, efficient and safe handling of your emergency response.
Consider that as times have changed so have the degree and quantities of risks, making our jobs that more dangerous. By selecting an ISO that is qualified for this role and supporting them in the discharge of their assigned duties we can better manage the risk factors that accompany us on every call.